Mass media can be seen to bear an enormous responsibility for the presentation of negative
stereotypes which continually affect those who struggle with mental illness. These negative
stereotypes can profoundly stigmatise those suffering with psychiatric conditions by
exhibiting inaccurate and misinformed portrayals of mental illness and how it is medically
treated. As a consequence of poor research, the media has often presented incorrect and
sometimes deeply offensive images of mental health disorders. Mass media, in particular
film, can contribute to and even intensify the societal stigma already aligned with illnesses of
the mind. Consequently, the seriousness of such conditions is not taken into account and an
unsympathetic perspective towards mental illness is encouraged.
Characters with mental illness are often perceived as dangerous, deviant characters or
alternately represented in a comical manner. Poor understanding of medical conditions often
lead to an incorrect depiction of a mental health condition. For example, Schizophrenia is
frequently misrepresented as multiple personality disorder; the disease is commonly
portrayed in film inaccurately and therefore identifiable to audiences as a split personality
disorder. Films such as Me, Myself and Irene (2000) show that the understanding of
Schizophrenia has showed no improvement as time has passed.
The portrayal of how mental illness is medically treated by professionals in film is also an
issue that raises some concern. The use of medication as a form of chemical restraint and the
abuse of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) as a form of patient management, along with
authoritative medical practitioners provides a terrifying insight into Hollywood’s idea of the
treatment of psychiatric conditions. It is possible to assume that such frightening images may
discourage people who actually suffer with various mental illnesses to actively seek treatment, as “patients themselves are likely to be part of the psychiatrically misinformed and
inexperienced general public” (Wahl, 1995).
It is difficult to understand how little progress there has been in the area of mental illness in
film. Negative, prejudicial images continue to grace cinema screens. There are a number of
factors which may encourage this: for example, the commercial nature of film, being that it is
driven by the demand of viewers; film-makers etc. remain ill-informed as do their audience;
the historical popularity of the ‘mad man’ in art, literature, TV and film and the attempts to
differentiate ‘them’ from ‘us’ through abnormal appearances and behaviour. Another factor
that may be slowly starting to change is the lack of response from the people who are affected
by these images of mental illness, including sufferers and non-sufferers.